The “hidden curriculum” (social rules people expect you to just “know” without being taught), has VERY strict rules about what’s okay to say or do in public and private settings. These rules are especially strict when they’re related to sex and sexuality. Breaking those unspoken rules can result in people not wanting to be around you, or even in legal trouble, such as getting arrested.
Different cultures and social groups also have different ideas of what behaviors are okay in public and private. This is because different groups have different values. Those values are often not clearly explained or stated – people might expect you to just “know.” The same is true for public and private behaviors – people expect you to just “know” what is appropriate in different settings by observing your surroundings over time, but without ever being told. What is appropriate to do and talk about can also change based on where you are and who you are with. It can further be complicated by your age, gender, skin color, and more.
Sometimes, it’s easy to tell what is appropriate to do or say in public as opposed to private settings. Other times, it can be hard to understand. For example, when and where are behaviors such as taking care of personal hygiene, undressing, holding personal conversations, or kissing appropriate? Sharing information about yourself is different in public and private situations, too. Who is it okay to talk to or share personal information with?
There are two major types of places we find ourselves in during our daily lives: public and private. Most people only talk about public and private places. For the purposes of making nuanced social rules about privacy easier for you to understand, this section categorizes places into public, semi-public, semi-private, and private. For each type of place, there are specific behaviors, conversations, and information that are considered appropriate. If you mention semi-public and semi-private places to people who haven’t read this guide, they won’t know what you mean.
In this section, we will discuss:
- Why understanding the difference between public and private is important
- What public, semi-public, semi-private, and private places are
- What behaviors, conversations, and personal information are okay in each type of place
This chart summarizes the basics of what will be covered in this section. Notice that anything that can be done in public can also be done in more private settings.
Why is Public Versus Private Important?
The difference between what is appropriate in public and private spaces is one of the most important social rules. It is also one of the least flexible social rules. Breaking rules about public and private spaces can get you in serious legal trouble.
Rules and agreements about what is appropriate to do and say in public versus in private are set up as safeguards. So when people see someone doing a private activity (such as being naked or urinating) in a public place, that signals to them that whoever is doing that activity may not be a safe person to be around. And, as a result, they may decide they no longer want to be around you and may limit the amount of contact they have with you in the future. That’s part of why it’s so important to understand the difference between public and private – knowing what is appropriate will help keep you safe and help make sure others feel safe with you.
Understanding public and private social rules impacts two types of safety: your own personal safety and the safety of others.
If YOU do something in public that is only supposed to be done in private, you could be arrested. If someone else is doing things in public that should only be done in private, they might have harmful intentions toward you.
Rules about privacy are very strict. Doing something that is not socially acceptable, especially if it is related to bodies or sex, makes others think they are not safe around you. Learning the difference between public and private can help you be aware of how you’re being perceived.
In addition to more informal social situations with family and friends, knowing the rules of what behaviors are socially acceptable (both written and unwritten) will help keep you from being in trouble with people in authority, such as school principals, employers, or even the police.
Public places are “shared” places. These are places where people can easily see what you do and hear what you say.
- Other people are often in public places with you, and might come into and out of public places without warning or needing permission.
- Examples: movie theaters, grocery stores, libraries, schools, offices, sidewalks, parks, restaurants, coffee shops, and more.
Note: Even if a place is considered “public,” it doesn’t always mean that everyone is allowed to go to there. For example, you might not be allowed to enter an office building where you do not work, but it is still a public place. The social rules for public places apply there.
What are some behaviors that are okay to do in public places?
Public behaviors are things that are okay to do in front of other people, no matter how well or how little you know them.
- Types of touch that are okay in public include:
- High fives
- Brief hugs
- Holding hands
- A brief kiss on the cheek or on closed lips
- This is not always okay in public – there are exceptions.
Note: Whether it’s okay to kiss in public depends on who you’re with and where you are. For example, if you are at a formal holiday dinner for your office, it is inappropriate to kiss your partner, even briefly, in front of your boss.
Public Displays of Affection
Some people are not okay with kissing in public (also called public displays of affection or PDA). Some people just don’t like PDA, but others stay away from it because they worry for their safety in public settings. For example, LGBTQ people may worry about being harassed verbally or physically by prejudiced onlookers if they publicly show affection for each other.
What conversations are okay to have in public places?
Conversations about topics that don’t make others uncomfortable are appropriate in public.
- These conversations usually don’t require sharing personal information.
- While people may have strong opinions about these topics, they don’t often offend others.
- Some examples of these topics include popular culture, the weather, sports, school work, and jobs.
Things that you’d hear about on the news are also public topics of conversation.
- Politics is a public topic, but there is a difference between general observations and personal views.
- General observations and facts about politics are public conversation topics.
- Personal views, opinions, and interpretations of politics are considered semi-public (see below).
- Personal views on politics are often very strong, and disagreements could lead to conflict. For that reason, some people prefer to only talk about their political beliefs with friends or family, rather than strangers or acquaintances.
Tone of voice and words used
Consider your tone of voice and language use in public. For example, if you are at a restaurant with friends and you are being loud, other people eating at the restaurant may be annoyed. Similarly, when you are in a public space, avoid using offensive language or words that are considered crude.
Anything that you do or say in public is also appropriate to do in private.
What are semi-public places?
Semi-public places have some privacy, but are still considered shared (public/shared) spaces.
- They are usually part of a public place, but there may be fewer people around you, or you may be in an enclosed area.
- Examples: individual offices with a door that closes, the living room in a shared house or apartment, a study room in a school, a bench in a secluded area of a park, and more.
What are some behaviors that are okay to do in semi-public places?
Semi-public behaviors are usually the same as public behaviors.
- If you are in a friendly or familiar semi-public setting (like your living room), it is okay do to things like cuddling or giving long hugs.
What are conversations that are okay to have in semi-public places?
Conversations about topics you can talk about in public places, but that include information that is more sensitive, detailed, or personal than what you would talk about with strangers, are acceptable in semi-public places.
- Personal conversations on topics like dating or your goals for the future
- Updates on your family’s and friends’ lives
- Details of a work project
- Political opinions
What are semi-private places?
Semi-private places are public spaces that are meant for private use.
- You might have some privacy, but you are still sharing space with people you may or may not know.
- You are often able to hear or see others in a semi-private place.
- Examples: an examination room at the doctor’s office, public restrooms, and locker rooms.
What are some behaviors that are okay to do in semi-private places?
Semi-private behaviors are private things that you can do in certain public spaces, if they are meant for private use.
- Getting dressed or undressing (in locker rooms, doctor’s exam rooms)
- Using the bathroom (in public restrooms like at school, work, or the movies)
Not all private activities can be done in semi-private places. For example, it’s not okay to clip your toenails at the doctor’s office or in a public restroom.
What are conversations that are okay to have in semi-private places?
Conversations that are acceptable in semi-private settings depend on the specific setting you are in and who you are talking with.
- Orlando saw Eli in the locker room after swimming at the pool. Eli was changing his clothes. Orlando and Eli were often both at the pool at the same time, so Orlando wanted to introduce himself and try to make a new friend. Orlando went over to talk to Eli while he was still changing. This made Eli uncomfortable because he wasn’t finished getting dressed. If Orlando wanted to introduce himself, he should do after they are both finished changing and preferably outside of the locker room.
- If you are in a public restroom or locker room with a stranger or acquaintance, you usually wouldn’t talk with them.
- If you are in a public restroom or locker room with a close friend or family member, it’s okay to talk with them about anything you normally would in a public place.
- If you and a friend or family member are by yourselves, you can talk about more personal things that are also okay in semi-public places
- If you are with strangers or acquaintances, you should only talk about topics that are okay in public conversations
- If you’re in a doctor’s examination room, you would talk about your health, including your sexual and reproductive health.
What are private places?
Private places are places where others can’t see what you do or easily hear what you say.
- Other people shouldn’t come into private places without permission.
- Examples: your bedroom or bathrooms in your home (with the door closed).
What are some behaviors that are okay to do in private places?
Private behaviors are things you should only do by yourself or, if it’s something sexual, with a consenting partner in a private place.
- Personal hygiene (flossing, clipping your nails, etc.)
- There are some exceptions to this, since some people are comfortable brushing the teeth in front of their friends or family, for example. But you would not, for example, clip your nails in a public place, even if it was a public bathroom.
- Nudity (including bathing or showering)
- Talking about or managing menstruation
- Any kind of sexual activity with a partner or by yourself
- Kissing or hugging for a long time
- Viewing pornography or sexually explicit materials (images that show or talk about genitals in a sexual way or people engaging in sexual activity)
- Many people get especially uncomfortable about pornography or sexually explicit material. It is a taboo subject that people often do not talk about because it is so private. It is also a controversial activity – some people do not believe porn or sexually explicit materials should be used.
- If you do choose to view these materials, do so with caution. Remember that most sexually explicit materials don’t show what sex between people is really like. Pornographic videos frequently portray unrealistic ways of initiating sex in unusual situations that would be inappropriate if done in real life.
Look at the images below for an example.
In the image on the left, Victor is watching something sexually explicit (a private behavior). He is in his own room with the door closed (a private place), so this is okay. In the image on the right, Victor is watching the same sexually explicit material (a private behavior), but he is in the library (a public place), so this is not okay. In this image, the people around Victor are shocked and upset because of what he is watching in front of them. He may get into trouble, be banned from going to the library again, or even be arrested.
What are conversations that are okay to have in private places?
Conversations about topics you should only talk about with people who are directly related to the conversation are appropriate in private places.
- Sex-related conversation, especially personal details about who someone is having sex with or what their sexual preferences are
- Your sexual and reproductive health can be discussed with a medical provider, in a semi-private setting
- You might also talk about sex in a health class at school, but this is done in a general way and not specifically about your sexual activity
- Information about dating (your own and other people’s)
- Medical details
- For example, if you’re talking with a parent about your body or any medications you take
Note: Conversations about abuse or sexual harassment and assault are usually private, but if someone hurts you, you should seek help. [link to Healthy Relationships] This may mean talking about private subjects with helpful strangers such as police officers, court officials, doctors, or counselors whom you have never met before.
Examples of exceptions to rules about private places, behaviors, and conversations that depend on context:
- You might see people kissing for a long time (private behavior) on the street (public place), or hear classmates talking about their crushes (private conversation) in the school cafeteria (public place).
- Some people feel safe doing these things or are prepared for any possible social consequences that happen as a result.
It can be hard to tell what exceptions are socially acceptable if you have trouble with social cues. Because of this, it’s usually best to only do private things and have private conversations in private places.
Social rules about what is appropriate in public places versus private places can be confusing, but understanding them is an important part of keeping yourself and others safe and comfortable.
If you need help remembering some examples of behaviors that are appropriate in different types of places, you can refer to the chart at the end of this page.
Appropriate Behaviors in Public
Social rules about the difference between public and private can help people figure out if a situation is safe.
- Following these social rules also helps you stay safe and make sure you don’t get in legal trouble.
- There are public, semi-public, semi-private, and private places, though most people only talk about public and private ones.
- In each type of place, certain behaviors and conversations are appropriate.
- Social rules about what it’s okay to do and talk about depend not only on where you are but also on who you are with.
Information found on OAR’s Sex Ed. for Self-Advocates website, related videos, resources, and links are not a substitute for professional medical advice. All users of the site should consult with a physician or other health care provider to discuss specific concerns if they require further information or clarity.